March 2004

The Eyes of Texas are Upon Us


OR… Amarillo is closer to Chicago than Brownsville; El Paso is closer to Los Angeles than Houston. 

Think about it.

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Well, we know we said we were going to Mexico this winter, but ’twas not for us this year after all.  A few days before we were to start heading for the border, we contacted insurance people to make sure we had all the necessary certificates and coverages for our trip.  We didn’t.  it’s a long story with which we will not bore you, dear readers, but the upshot was that we were up a creek without a paddle, and new paddles were going to be very expensive.  So we reminded ourselves that Mexico has been there for years and will be there for us another time and have instead been hanging out in Texas for January and February.  We’ll start back into the Deep South shortly after the first of March.

And Texas is pretty neat, too.  We’ve been visiting state parks in the Houston, Gulf Coast, south and west Texas areas; and enjoying our time here.  There’s a reason why there are so many “winter Texans.”  West Coasters tend to think of this state as being really big, really full of smart-ass folks who think they’re better than anyone else, really dry and dusty, really boring to drive across; and it’s all that and more.  But it’s also big enough to encompass plenty of large, roomy state parks in lovely places, full of interesting critters and nice folks passing through just like we are.  Texas made a decision back a number of years ago to try and protect areas with something interesting nearby, or spots of historic interest, and the state created a series of parks which showcase significant moments in history as well as preserving many areas of natural beauty that might otherwise have been developed and ruined.  

As you may remember, we spent Christmas along the Brazos River, south of Houston, and sent you pictures from there.  It was at that point that we realized Mexico was not an option for this year.  So we decided to see what was further south, still staying in the Gulf Coast area.  We spent a couple of weeks at Lake Texana State Park, probably the nicest of the Texas parks we’ve been to yet.  

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Lake Texana is a man-made lake perhaps 50 miles inland from the Gulf; still warmish, but increasingly remote, as we were now another 100 miles further south of Houston.  But what a delight!  We saw armadillos, red shouldered hawks, a brown pelican feeding out of the lake (we think he was lost), raccoons, and deer – tons of deer.  There was a herd of about 35 that lived in the campground, literally.  They moved around from one site to another during the day, and bedded down in grassy areas a short distance away during the night.  They were happy to be fed, although a little skittish with small children.  But what a treat!  We saw a few deer from time to time in other parks, but nothing like this!  Rick took picture after picture.  They hardly moved.  The herd was mostly mommas and babies, but we did see bucks off in the distance from time to time, complete with decent racks.  We never got tired of watching them.  We were in a quiet spot at the end of a road, right on the lake, and they hung around there a lot of the time.  

Regardless of how delightful, all good things must come to an end, and we moved on, wanting to visit the Corpus Christi area.  What a boring idea that was; we did spend parts of a couple of days in Corpus, as the locals say, but there’s not much there.  Corpus Christi is home to a lot of refineries; that ruins the picture right off the bat.  It has arterial roads named Southern Minerals Road, and Carbon Plant Road; how delightful is that!  The city has grown up in a long strip paralleling the coastline, with a considerable distance from one end to the other; it seemed like one long strip mall.  Perhaps I’m too harsh, but we didn’t waste a lot of time there.  We did visit the USS Lexington, which is permanently docked there.  A real disappointment; not in very good shape when compared to the USS Alabama, and much more commercialized.  But one really cool thing:  you can do sleepovers onboard.  Wouldn’t that be fun!  There was a group of Boy Scouts and dads arriving for the weekend while we were there; I bet they had tons of fun!!  

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On our way into town, we also passed a lovely mission church, Our Lady of Corpus Christi, which would make a nice visit some sweet day.  We were staying about 40 miles out of town, at Lake Corpus Christi State Park, and you can’t get much more out of town than that.  We were nowhere, with no cell phone coverage, nearest little town about 7-8 miles away (washateria, public library, grocery store, actually a pretty decent Mexican restaurant, you get the picture).  But ….. and it’s a huge but:  it was quiet and serene, we had a lovely view west over the lake, there were plenty of birds to watch, incredible sunsets, no one within sight, and a good-sized herd of JAVALINAS.  What a kick.  They are BIG ugly guys, not pigs, collared peccaries, to the scientifically oriented.  And fun to watch.  Much more skittish (skittisher?  No?  perhaps not…..) than the deer.  But a real hoot.  I was surprised how big they were.  We gave them a wide berth.  And vice versa.

Lake Corpus Christi State Park was a happy choice. The closest little town, Mathis, was sleepy, forgotten, largely Catholic (very big Catholic cemetery and church), and largely Mexican.  It seemed almost deserted.  I did my laundry at Mary’s Washateria, where there was a little old man sitting at a table dispensing quarters as needed.  His granddaughter brought him a delicious-looking lunch; we sat and drooled (no, at the food, dummy; if Rick had been present he would have drooled at the young lady – quite lovely).  About 3:30 school let out, the grocery store was jammed, the library had no computers available; the place came alive.  Mathis was really quite nice, once you figured out where things were.  The main street was pretty dilapidated, but all the normal stuff was scattered here and there.  And there were big signs shouting out:  MHS is state bound (Basketball?  Football?  Baseball?)

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This far south, you feel very close to Mexico, and you are more and more reminded of those from whom we took this land.  The countryside is dry, sagebrush and chaparral, lots of cactus and cottonwoods, slightly rolling, ranch country.  Lots of cattle and hay.  South Texas is land grant country, where early settlers had huge acreage (since divided up into smaller parcels, mostly) and the cattle had big horns.  (You can still see some of them from time to time.)  South Texas also ….. has no cell phone coverage; this is why we are looking for libraries with their computer internet access.  And the libraries/computers are in good supply.  Most towns are well equipped; you may have to stand in line behind the local teenagers (some doing homework, some playing solitaire), but you can pick up messages and check stuff out.  This is how we are keeping in touch these days.

The Corpus Christi area is well known for its birding:  Port Aransas, Mustang Island, Padre Island; these beach areas are home to zillions of migrating birds.  We took a day and checked out some of it, with even a little success.  But the coolest thing we did was to take a little ferry from one spot to another, and to see dolphins off the port bow.  Rick, with the keen eyes, saw them first; we both enjoyed the treat.  Having lived on the California coast for absolutely forever, and having seen virtually no dolphins during that entire time, it was indeed cool.  

One comment about Texas beach towns:  they look just like Florida beach towns, California beach towns, etc; you get the picture.  Cheap fish joints, grungy parking lots, grey buildings with blue awnings, enormous octopi clinging to pink roofs; beer-drinkers on Saturday mornings; sound familiar?

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Corpus Christi is near Robstown, home of the Proud Cottonpickers, 1991 state champs of something.

Texas is the home of the Wattaburger, declared a Texas treasure in 2001 by the Texas state legislature (another state with a paucity of real issues with which to grapple, I guess).  Actually, their burgers are really yummy.  Got McDonald’s beat all to hell.

Well, we left Lake CC State Park in a hurry one morning, having run out of propane.  Ooooops.  But it was time anyway as we’d planned to leave the next morning; we headed back up to Houston to take care of some business and then on to San Antonio.  Cell phone coverage back, too, at least for awhile.  We went through Alvin, the home of Nolan Ryan; past the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge (huh? We’ve included a photo for the unbelieving; we really don’t make these things up… who could?); through Flatonia, home of the Czhilispiel held the last weekend in October, Thumper’s Restaurant and Grumpy’s Motor Inn; skirted around Luling, where they hold the Thump the second weekend in June; and through San Antonio to the little town of Hondo, where we hung out for about a week before heading toward Big Bend.  Hondo is close enough to San Antonio that we were able to go back and forth a bit; we had discovered a really cool movie theater and wanted to partake.  It was the Bijou; they serve food (real food, like salads, main dishes, liquor, and pizza-type stuff) that they let you take into the theater, where they have tables set up in front of the seating.  It was keen.  We saw a bunch of movies (three in one day, actually) that we’d been chomping at the bit about, and enjoyed the big town atmosphere.  Toyota is about to build a big plant south of San Antonio; this is an encouraging trend (refer back to central Alabama from a month or so ago, that was getting a big auto plant, too).

Before heading west to Big Bend, we made one last trip to Houston to take care of a motorcycle-related something, then back through Hondo (which is west of San Antonio) and on to the huge metropolis of Uvalde.  It was the day after the Super Bowl, which, for the rest of you out there, was held in Houston.  We saw John Madden’s bus heading west, along with limousines heading back to their home bases after serving the needs of happy/unhappy sports fans during the NFL’s annual extravaganza.

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(Somewhere along in here we tried moving Agnes’ cheese again.  Our little calico is becoming not so little.  So we thought we’d try just putting the food out at certain specified times, and then removing it after an hour or so.  REALLY BAD IDEA.  Agnes seemed to be fine, just devouring anything around when it was available.  But somewhat to our surprise, Jeremy, who is rather thin and never seems terribly interested in food, became like Cassius:  he had a very lean and hungry look.  He took to landing on anyone who went near where the food was kept, and really “found his voice.”  Well, we put up with this for a week or so, and then declared the experiment a complete failure.  Agnes is just going to get fat, that’s all.)

Leaving Hondo (which has a big sign coming into town that says THIS IS GOD’S COUNTRY, SO DON’T DRIVE THROUGH TOWN LIKE HELL), and passing by Ima’s Antiques and Opa Willie’s Fresh Produce, we began the big trek over towards Big Bend National Park.  And found we were in West Texas, another big and different kind of country.  Getting to Big Bend takes DAYS.  We went through Big Foot, home of the Big Foot Wallace Museum (full of “fascinating clutter,” according to the brochure).  We had breakfast in a delightful little restaurant in Castroville (no artichokes in sight), which is home to a large Alsatian community.  Yummy food, and a chance to overhear some cowboy types saying that “it wasn’t rocket surgery,” which we enjoyed.  Castroville is also the home of Pete’s BBQ and Bait Stand, which gave us pause.  Back on the road, we passed a Quail Farm, with both live and frozen birds available (depending on the time of year?).  We went through Knippa (“Go Ahead and Blink!  Knippa is Bigger than you Think!”).  We were getting closer to the border now, passing through Uvalde, with its mohair socks factory store; near the location of John Wayne’s Alamo picture (Brackettville, “The Movie Capital of Texas”).  Then we crossed the Pecos River, going through Langtry (Judge Roy Bean’s hangout), and into Sanderson, where we got fuel.  Still trudging.  Sanderson was just okay, although they did have one store, the Sanderson Tire and Feed, with a logo featuring a cow with a tire around her neck.  And then, finally, gasp, gasp, to Marathon, the gateway to Big Bend.

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Big Bend National Park is a strange and delightful place.  When you come, bring water and empty holding tanks:  there are few opportunities to accommodate either within the park.  They really don’t want you to stay very long.  This is desert, the Chihuahuan Desert, which extends way down into Mexico.  The area is very fragile, with little water.  Whoa, you say:  “little water,” how can that be?  Isn’t “big bend” on the Rio Grande River?  Yes, my little ones, but there’s not a whole bunch of water in that river these days.  It has been dammed and diverted; what we saw was pretty puny, although there is more at other times of the year, one presumes.  In the park there are signs suggesting a maximum of 5 gallons water usage per person per day.  

There are wondrous things to see in the park, and it is a major worldwide attraction.  We met some very interesting folks in our little campground; a fellow from Alaska, a Belgian couple, Canadian folks from Manitoba, Montreal, and most interesting, British Columbians who were making their way home after several months in South America.  We spent a couple of delightful hours with this last couple, learning about their trip (on the whole really good but filled with significant difficulties).  South America is a whole different ballgame; not sure we have as much guts as they did. (so much for prognostications... ed.)  Wonderful folks, and we will make sure to meet up with them again some time in the future.  Big Bend is full of awesome scenery, great motorcycle roads, wild swings in elevation that lead to wildly different terrain, and our first roadrunners.  Too cute.  We had a grand time; it’s such a shame Big Bend is so far from the rest of the world.  If you have the opportunity, however, spend the miles and take it in.  You will be amply rewarded.  Just don’t go during spring break.  And this is an odd situation.  I think of spring break as being for the partying crowd, and wonder why they would want to go all that way just to drink beer.  But it’s not for swigging the brew that they make the trek, it’s for the chance to hike in the area.  Serious hikers arrive from all over and take over the campgrounds; a sober group on the whole, the only odor will be from smelly socks!

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But I digress from our Great Texas Adventure.  We went from almost sea level at Big Bend to over 5200’ at the state park near Fort Davis.  Fort Davis is a delightful little western town that’s not corny, not hokey, just delightful.  Friendly folks, good food, and a very nice state park, with the McDonald Observatory only a few miles away.  Now we were really out West again, and trying to figure out what went wrong.  We weren’t going to go west, dammit.  We didn’t want to be stuck out here in the boonies.  And boy, west Texas is REALLY out in the middle of nowhere.  Do you remember the movie “The Last Picture Show”?  Could have been filmed right here.  Looking at the map, we realized we were practically “underneath” Colorado?  But, okay we said, we’ve been told this is a nice area, let’s check it out, and then we’ll turn our faces eastward again.

We were glad we stayed a few days.  It was very cold, not just at night but all day as well; a smattering of snow fell at one point.  Cold enough our water lines froze one night and didn’t thaw until about 7:00 pm the following evening.  It never did get above freezing, but heaters underneath the coach and pouring hot water in the right places finally did the trick.  And then the following night it got down to 16 degrees.  That was the evening it had finally cleared after several overcast days, and we went up to the Observatory for a star party.  We had a lovely evening, even if no right-minded person stood in one place for very long.  We saw millions of stars, as this area has possibly the clearest and darkest skies in the United States.  McDonald Observatory is run by the University of Texas and their programs are very enjoyable.  Not as enjoyable was the trip back down off the mountain to our campground:  it was already in the low 20s and we had about 12 miles to go on the motorcycle.  It took awhile to warm back up after that!  

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The scenery in this area was dramatic and interesting; similar to Utah but without the strong colors.  Again we saw deer, but this time they were mule deer, once again reminding us how far west we had drifted.  There were lots in the campground (Davis Mountains State Park), and we had the opportunity of seeing tourists at their worst.  Lots of signs saying not to feed or approach the animals.  Large (very) woman petting a pronged buck (with a decent rack, mind you) and yelling at her spouse “Oh gosh, this one has ticks on its head.”  We turned and walked away.  On a happier note, two very well attended bird feeding areas had been erected, and we saw many wonderful birds.  Oh yeah, and skunks one evening during a walk in the dark; “about face!.”

Leaving the Fort Davis area, we finally turned our faces to the east, eastern Texas anyway.  Wanting to make tracks, we jumped on I-10 (in the western part of the state we call it The Twilight Zone), passing through several unforgettable areas, looking in vain for a decent newspaper, stopping for lunch in Ozona, crossing the Pecos River and re-entering a more familiar world.  We were heading for the Hill Country.  

The Texas Hill Country is north of San Antonio, extending about 150 miles from west to east; it’s cowboy country, rolling hills.  We spent a week or so in the area, staying in two different parks and roaming the area.  We’d been here before, and had been looking forward to a return visit.  How can you not like a spot where Bubba Popham was running for Bandera County Sheriff?  Lots of cattle ranching here, and farms full of “exotics”:  we saw Sika deer, emus, little antelope, strange goats.  Oh, and the deer now have white tails again.  We revisited some of our favorite spots from an earlier time, picking up jam in Fredericksburg, wandering the Lost Maples area, traveling up to Marble Falls in search of the perfect pie, you know the story.  We even ended up in Austin one afternoon.  It was goofy, because we had to travel eighty miles back to our campground that night in order to be at an appointment the next morning; only to pick up after the appointment and go right back up to Austin for an appointment we had for the following morning.  Really silly.  And what’s worse:  after we had been in the area for about a week we found out we had just missed (in Kerrville) and were going to miss again the following night (in Austin), one of our favorite musicians.  We were temporarily bummed, but got on his web-site and found out we will be able to see him this summer in Vermont at a 3-day music festival.  Totally cool.

Managed to get within 20 miles of Llano, the barbeque capital of Texas, and didn’t get any closer.  Supposed to be the best of the best.  Next time.

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Our appointments in the area were for servicing our various wheels: the motorhome got a workout in New Braunfels and we took the bike up to Austin to the BMW dealership.  Hard to believe we’ve already put 6000 miles on the new bike.  We had good BBQ in Austin, had the bike work done, and headed for the great metropolis of Eagle Lake, outside Houston.  Houston, you say, but you’ve already been there a million times this winter.  Yup; getting’ kinda tired of it, too.  But we had found a nice, well recommended body shop in Eagle Lake, and in 2-1/2 days they did some really beautiful work fixing up a collection of small dings on the coach.  Looks like new.  We had pretty good weather while we were there (once again spending our nights with the wrecked cars and the trains going by – tooot - tooot), and wandered the area.  Probably the highlight was a visit to Washington-On-The Brazos (yup, the same Brazos River).  This is where Texans declared their independence from Mexico in 1836, and had their first gathering to work on a constitution.  Sam Houston and all that.  Anyway, there is an excellent visitor’s center and museum there; the area looks today pretty much like it did in 1836; and we had a nice visit.  They were preparing for an enactment weekend to start the following day, so everything was in tip-top shape.    

This is an area west of Houston and a bit north, north of I-10 anyway.  It’s nice farmland, green already, with plenty of trees.  Easy to see why the first families wanted to settle here.  We saw some longhorns, but mostly dairy cattle of various kinds.  All well fed.  To those of you who have visited Texas, this is the home country of the Blue Bell Creamery.  We arrived too late for the last tour of the day, so had to settle for a scoop of the local product.  A fine choice.

Now we were really headed east.  As soon as the coach was all spiffed up, we headed for the Louisiana border.  It was good to have spent some “quality time” in Texas; the state has a lot to offer, once you get beyond prejudices (on both sides).  We saw lovely, interesting, and varied country; met friendly folks everywhere; and can newly appreciate why the Texans and Tejanos thought it was worth fighting for.  

We plan to spend the spring in the Deep South, soaking up plantation life and azalea festivals ‘til we can’t stand it any longer.  We’ll be here until mid-May, when we start up the coast to the Carolinas and Virginia, then head up into the Canadian Maritime Provinces for the summer.  We don’t expect to be on the West Coast this year unless family issues arise, so we invite you all to come join us in the east.  It’s cotton planting time and we could use your help………If you can’t come join us, drop us a line from time to time, letting us know how you’re doing.  (As always, please start new messages instead of hitting “Reply,” as our cell phone snake chokes up pretty easily).

Love to all,

Rick and Kathy ….. and the cats (Gordon Lightfoot and Agnes of Clod)

PS  Interesting, serious sidebar:  Nopalitos is the prickly pear cactus; tunas are the apples they produce.  Tunas are now being used for controlling blood sugar/diabetes.  Experiments are being done by the University of Arizona.  This is the same cactus you have in your back yard, or at least can see all over SLO County.  If you are interested in more information, write to the Texas Cactus Council and send $14.00 to JT Garcia, PO Box 423, Benavides TX 78341 (I think it was for information and recipes).

 See more photos from the US in 2004

© Rick & Kathy Howe 2001-2018